Native Grasslands Can Be Saved by 'Protect Our Prairies Act'

There's new hope that native grasslands--arguably the most threatened wildlife habitat in the nation - can be saved. But the House of Representatives will have to follow the bipartisan lead of a couple of prairie state representatives to get that done for sportsmen.

The Protect Our Prairies Act recently introduced by Tom Walz (D-MN) and Kristi Noem (R-SD) would help protect the nation's remaining native sod and grasslands by reducing federal crop insurance subsidies for the first four years those acres are farmed.

This is a new version of the "Sod Saver" concept that has been around for some time, with the aim of preventing native grasslands from being plowed for two important reasons: This habitat is critical for a wide range of upland birds, migratory waterfowl and numerous other species; and they are far less productive for crops than other lands.

But the need for Sod Saver has never been greater, because the recent push for corn-based ethanol and soaring world commodity prices have led to a dramatic increase in conversion of grasslands to row crops.

Last year, many in Congress attempted to mitigate this ongoing wildlife disaster, with the Senate passing a bipartisan Farm Bill that had a national Sod Saver program. Unfortunately, the House never did pass a Farm Bill, and the version it was considering had only a regional Sod Saver provision. That's because the Ag. Committee chairman, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), is opposed to a national program.

Wildlife advocates point out regional programs - which allow states to opt in or out - have never been successful.

"The House version (last year) only applied to prairie pothole region, and that covered parts of a handful of states," said Steve Kline, director of the Center for Agriculture and Private Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "The problem with these partial programs is that you create situations that even within a state or perhaps even a county, some farmers would be in, some would be out, and you have an enforcement nightmare.

"National Sod Saver is absolutely critical if we're to prevent the loss of this incredibly valuable habitat for wildlife."

The new Sod Saver bills have gained support among fiscal conservatives because they tie a grant from the taxpayer to a service from the landowner. Reps Walz and Noem said their bill could save the taxpayers $200 million while also serving a critical conservation function for wildlife, and sportsmen.

In a video interview with Ducks Unlimited, which is one of the bill's supporters, Walz and Noem said they were confident a Farm Bill would move out of the House this year.

Sod Saver's inclusion in a Farm Bill indicates their Protect our Prairies measure is also a public statement to fellow House members that national Sod Saver has bipartisan support.

Sportsmen can help by contacting their congressional delegation urging them to pass this bill, or include its goals in the next House Farm Bill.